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Overview - Annual Report from Comcare

Director's review

Paul O'Connor, Comcare Chief Executive Officer

Paul O'Connor,
Comcare Chief Executive Officer

It’s a privilege being the steward of Comcare’s important role helping tackle the obstacles to a life in work.

Our people helped build a more secure, stronger and fairer Australia. I thank them for their energy, focus, empathy and understanding in helping workers, their employers, unions and their families.

I am indebted to my colleague members of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission for their expert oversight of our work, their ideas, encouragement and support.

I am proud to share with you what we have achieved, what we have learned and what we need to do better. These are the stories about the steps we took to deliver on what the community has asked us to do.

Our 2015 Plan

A year ago, we started our five-year journey to turn policy into action and deliver on our Strategic plan 2010–2015 (2015 Plan). The 2015 Plan is ambitious and calls for a much needed strengthening of Comcare’s approach to work health and safety, and support for people affected by workplace harm. It reflects best practice and the expectations and experiences of the community we serve.

Our focus

Last year, we changed how we are organised and managed to deliver on our statutory charters. We have three points of focus:

  • Prevention—to build healthy and safe workplaces.  
  • Recovery and support—to help harmed workers return to work and to help both them and their families cope with challenge and change.  
  • Scheme integrity—to ensure the Comcare scheme is strong and sustainable and represents value for money to the community we serve.

Much has been made of our motto, ‘Putting you First’. It tells the story of our approach, putting people at the centre of our focus and how we deliver on the Government’s expectation of ‘citizen-centred’ services. We acknowledge that the people affected by a process are the ones best placed to help design and deliver what is needed.

We have worked hard to co-design new services and approaches, involving our people, scheme employers, their workers, unions and other community stakeholders.

Co-design has created social capital through increased engagement and responsibility. This has  extended from our new approach to building our annual Work Health and Safety Plan to how we work with medical and allied health experts to roll out new clinical guidelines.

We’ve made good progress—made mistakes and endured some challenges. However, we are learning   and committed to strengthening what we do and, just as importantly, how we do it.


The harmonisation of work health and safety laws has been a major part of Comcare’s work over the past year. All Australian governments agreed to introduce model work health and safety laws to reduce red tape and ensure consistent, fair work health and safety coverage.

We established a dedicated team, Project Harmony, to prepare federal workplaces for the anticipated January 2012 transition to the new model laws. Several initiatives—supported by new federal funds—helped duty holders learn more about the new laws and what it means for them and their workplaces.

A critical part of Project Harmony was to support Safe Work Australia in its drafting of the regulations and codes to accompany the new proposed federal law. This has given our own people the insight to understand what’s needed in their transition from ‘occupational health and safety investigators’ to the new designation and broader activity of ‘work health and safety inspectors’.

Just as important as harmonised laws is consistency in how various regulators including Comcare deliver health and safety services. Regulators have worked closely together to develop new approaches to service delivery. Each has played to their strengths, generously sharing experiences and insights.

Getting to this point has not been an easy path. More work is needed to close out our preparation for the transition to the new laws on 1 January 1, 2012. I am confident that the commitment, drive and energy of our people will ensure that we and federal workplaces will be ready.


It’s an outrage that people were killed and harmed at federal workplaces or due to their work in this last year. Families are still hurting. Communities have been affected. People have been touched by the workplace toll. This serves as a reminder for us—why we’re here, what we’re here to do, and most importantly, who we do it for.

Many people have worked hard to foster healthy and safe workplaces. Despite this, sadly six federal workers did not return home from work to their families and communities. Twenty-four claims were accepted last year for deaths that resulted from a disease contracted at a federal workplace. Twenty-two of these deaths were due to asbestos related disease.

We need to take the lessons from this workplace toll and do what we can, working together, to help shift the culture and mindset about what’s acceptable at federal workplaces. For example:

  • We assisted people at these workplaces to better comply with federal work health and safety laws and get ready for new model laws and ways of working.  
  • We put considerable effort into guidance for employers to help cultivate and promote a culture that celebrates a healthy, safe workforce and where the ‘tone at the top’ makes this a serious priority.  
  • We set up a new team to tackle bullying and harassment and respond to the havoc it caused to people’s lives and at their workplace.  
  • We implemented a response system in which a health or safety event in one location can trigger a range of workplace inspections across the country where similar issues may arise.  
  • We conducted workplace inspection programs in some of Australia’s most remote federal workplaces—including Cocos (keeling) Islands and the Antarctic—in order to ensure remotely located workers get fair access to services that reflect their special needs.
We changed the way we deliver work health and safety services to ensure we promoted prevention and early intervention. For example:
  • A new model of assessment and response to all work health and safety notifications ensures a consistent national approach to the assessment and handling of safety incidents.  
  • A new method of program logic helps us define the target areas to allocate our resources, responding to threats as well as harm and using various sources of intelligence and insight.  
  • The streamlining of our expertise ensures we’re focused on high value priorities and closing out our responses in record low times.

We strengthened our response to workplace harm through strong intervention. For example:

  • Our new Comcare Regulation policy explains how we respond to non-compliance and maintain strong enforcement outcomes.  
  • We reached out to families and local communities to better understand the impact of workplace deaths and serious injuries as we sought appropriate justice outcomes.  
  • We prosecuted 14 employers for their breaches of federal laws.  
  • We prosecuted a federal worker for breach of his responsibilities under federal law.  
  • We secured our first ever civil prosecution of a manufacturer for breach of their duty of care to end users.

Our new Work Health team was formed to lead the ‘thinking and doing’ needed to focus on how we respond to the health-related issues that affect people’s ability to continue a full and active work life. Examples of new work health initiatives include:

  • Establishing a virtual Centre of Excellence in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work, sharing ideas with experts to generate solutions to combat these trends and working with workers, employers and health practitioners to ensure the solutions are relevant and evidence-based.
  • Developing tools and enhanced training packages for those at the front line of dealing with mental health issues at federal workplaces.  
  • Working with several employers and their teams to test a range of approaches to the assessment and response to identifying and supporting people coping with mental health conditions.  
  • Participating in an important national study into better management of the significant risks that arise from sedentary work.
A continuing challenge for Comcare is to work with others to reduce work related death and serious injury. While there are fewer physical injuries in the past year, mental harm is growing. We’ve brought a strong research agenda to support and address this trend through evidence-based approaches and best practice recommendations.

Recovery and Support

Comcare’s work includes the support we provide to federal and ACT Government workers following workplace harm. Ideally, an early recovery and return to health will help their early, sustained return to work. Some will require on-going support in their return to independence.

This year, our people worked with others to define a new approach to how we handle service delivery to public sector workers and their employers. ‘Service excellence’ was the theme of the new model. It responded to the extensive feedback from workers, their unions and employers. It reflected best-practice reforms tested and delivered in other compensation and public insurance schemes. For example, the new model:

  • segments claims by their risk profile and the needs of the worker to ensure their needs are efficiently and effectively met  
  • uses expert advice to better leverage provider expertise and insights and focus on improved outcomes and better understanding outlier or difficult cases  
  • introduces better decision-support tools and processes including multi-disciplinary file reviews and clinical panel support  
  • improves communication and expectation setting for workers and their employers, helping set the scene for what to expect during their recovery and return to work  
  • has improved metrics and reporting to monitor success.

We’ll refine our model to ensure it delivers on what we promise, reflects the latest evidence-based practices and responds to feedback.

We’ve cleared a significant backlog of work and made better decisions, earlier. For example:

  • Claim determination targets were met with the lowest ever number of new claims awaiting a decision.  
  • The lowest in a decade number of requests for reconsideration of the claim decisions made by Comcare delegates was matched by a low number of merit reviews.  
  • A continuing high number of merit reviews of Comcare decisions were affirmed or dismissed.


The year hasn’t been without challenges, though. We’ve seen an increase in the value of outstanding claim liabilities. Some external economic factors are beyond our control including the impacts of wage and medical cost inflation and discount rates. Other elements can be influenced or controlled by us. For example, psychological injury claims are on the rise which comes at a great cost to our community.

Appropriate funding of public sector workers’ compensation remains a priority. We will strengthen our balance sheet to ensure it can withstand global financial market adjustments beyond our control. Our aim is to keep premium rates low while improving the services and support for employers and their workers.

We’re tackling the system costs within our control. Our carefully planned actions will be monitored to ensure we improve outcomes and strengthen the integrity and viability of the Comcare scheme.

Because of the way federal law currently works, it can be challenging to have the financial certainty that is usual in accident compensation and public insurance schemes. It’s important in the year ahead that we work with the relevant government agencies to implement the financial and business integrity reforms identified in our 2015 Plan.

Positive feedback

I’m proud to have received feedback from workers who’ve recovered their health, returned to work and have written to us to thank us for a job well done and for the care and respect our people showed them. This is the case in the vast majority of decisions made by Comcare delegates. We aim to be a model litigant in all that we do. When there is disputation or litigation, we take seriously our responsibility to be open and honest, fair and reasonable.

Learning from our errors

On occasion, we get things wrong. Human factors are involved. It’s important to acknowledge that we receive complaints from people adversely affected by mistake or oversight. We welcome scrutiny and accept that even small errors can cause anxiety, uncertainty and delay.

It’s been encouraging that we’ve had fewer complaints this year than last year. Nevertheless, the community
should be able to trust Comcare and expect us to get it right every time—it’s a fundamental principle. We’re an organisation that’s prepared to reflect, learn from our mistakes, apologise and improve what we do.

Our culture

Changing Comcare’s strategic direction and service focus has meant changing our organisational culture—‘the way things are done around here’. We’ve set up a Culture and Change team to help support our people and their teams deliver on the 2015 Plan. A comprehensive survey provided us with a snapshot of our current culture. We know what aspects we need to keep and what needs to change in order to create the most fulfilling and rewarding workplace that allows our people to achieve their best. When our people take good care of each other they’ll be better prepared for serving the community.

Keeping to plan

We are making accountability for performance a reality and a special focus in the last year. We’re tracking well against the 2015 Plan. We have effective and reliable scorekeeping that keeps our senior leaders informed and focused on what we do and how we go about our work. We are thorough in our risk management to mitigate future challenges. We regularly evaluate our work to identify opportunities for improvement and be ready for the road ahead.